The University of Edinburgh on Friday officially returned the skulls of four Paiwan warriors taken by Japanese in 1874 to the Taiwanese indigenous community, marking Taiwan’s first-ever international repatriation of ancestral remains.
The Scottish university’s vice principal Gavin McLachlan at a ceremony at the school’s St Cecilia’s Hall signed the repatriation documents to formally transfer the skulls, which had been stored at the university for over a century.
“This repatriation is a culmination of international cooperation between the university and the Taiwanese community,” anatomy academic Tom Gillingwater was quoted as saying in a statement.
Photo courtesy of the Council of Indigenous Peoples via CNA
The human remains were received by Mudan Township (牡丹) Mayor Pan Chuang-chih (潘壯志), with Council of Indigenous Peoples Deputy Minister Calivat Gadu and others as witnesses.
Mudan Township is home to many Paiwan people, the second-largest indigenous group in Taiwan.
The skulls were taken by Japanese during an 1874 punitive expedition into Shimen, in today’s Mudan Township, known as the “Mudan Incident,” which was launched in response to the massacre of 54 shipwrecked Ryukyuan sailors by Paiwan warriors three years earlier.
The remains were in 1907 given to the school, which holds one of the largest and most historically significant collections of ancestral remains, notably skulls, the university said in its statement.
They were thought to have been originally taken as war trophies by Japanese soldiers and were carried to Japan by an unnamed US Navy officer who had accompanied the Japanese as a military adviser, it said.
Before they reached the university, the skulls were in possession of Stuart Eldrige, a US doctor and skull collector living in Yokohama in Japan, and John Anderson, the first curator of the Indian Museum in Calcutta, it added.
The university said it has a long history of returning remains and items in its collection that came from the British Empire’s colonies or through their global networks, with the first repatriation taking place over 75 years ago.
“We are committed to addressing our colonial legacy and this repatriation is the latest action we have taken in line with our longstanding policy of returning items to appropriate representatives of the cultures from which they were taken,” Gillingwater was quoted as saying.
The Council of Indigenous Peoples first requested the return of the four skulls on behalf of the Paiwan people in 2021 and received a positive response from the University of Edingburgh last year, the council said in a statement.
The repatriation not only upholds the principles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but also raises global awareness of the human rights of indigenous peoples, the council said.
“It holds profound historical significance and stands as an important milestone in the pursuit of transitional justice for indigenous peoples,” it said.
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